nDanville generating jobs

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/11/2010 - 15:43

The nDanville fiber network is almost three years old, and is beginning to get national recognition here. Design Nine has been working with the City of Danville on this effort since 2006. We did the early business and financial planning, vendor selection, and open access network design. More about nDanville is available on their Web site.

Work from home opportunities continue to increase

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 05/09/2010 - 11:01

DirecTV recently announced it was bringing more jobs to southwest Virginia, but these are not traditional jobs. Instead, these are work from home jobs. The company is establishing a virtual call center. Congressman Rick Boucher made a sweep through the region last month to announce the new job opportunities, which amount to 100 new jobs. DirecTV already employs more than 1100 home-based workers, and other major firms like Apple have been making heavy use of home-based workers for several years.

What does this mean for economic development? Several things jump out:

BPL pioneer Manassas throws in the towel

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/19/2010 - 08:39

One of the earliest deployments of broadband over power lines (BPL) was the City of Manassas, Virginia. But last week, the city voted to turn off the system. Manassas is an electric city, with its own electric utility department, which made it relatively easy for the city to try out the new technology several years ago. But the BPL service reached only a handful of households and businesses (a little over 500, or less than 4%) and was not able to compete with DSL and cable modem options.

The fundamental problem with BPL is that it is relatively expensive, and when you are finished with a BPL deployment, what you have is broadband over copper, with limited bandwidth and no easy way to upgrade. Kind of like DSL and cable modem services. Fiber becomes more compelling by the day, as the demand for capacity increases as video in all its forms becomes a more common application and as the cost of fiber networks continues to fall. Why spend a substantial portion of the cost of a fiber network on a very limited copper-based system?

The fundamental problem with BPL, from a community perspective, is that it does not enable economic development and jobs growth the same way that fiber does. If your economic development strategy is, "Come to our community, because we have anemic BPL," you are in trouble, because there are plenty of other communities competing with you that have already decided to go straight to fiber.

Fiber brings a textile mill back to life

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 03/05/2010 - 09:23

I was in Danville, Virginia last week, and was reminded of the changes that fiber is bringing to that community, which has experienced some of the highest unemployment in the state over the last decade. The White Mill building had been considered a white elephant for years--once a showpiece textile manufacturing plant--but closed for years and a visible sign of Danville's proud past and uncertain future. The White Mill building is being converted into a massive commercial data center with 500,000 square feet of server space.

What I saw last week is still a work in progress, but what a difference a few months make. The formerly forlorn industrial site has been cleaned up, the interior renovations are well under way, and the property values of empty downtown storefronts has probably been quietly soaring. The White Mill building is walking distance from Danville's Main Street, and the 400 high tech jobs the project is bringing will bring Main Street back to life, as those workers will be getting coffee in the mornings, buying lunch every day, doing a little shopping, and meeting after work for a beverage.

What was it that brought a data center to Danville. It's simple, and takes just two words.

Community fiber.

Not a promise of fiber if a company shows up, not a plan for fiber, not a feasibility study, but fiber--in the ground and on poles, owned by the community, ready to use, and open access. Danville bet big back in 2006 when it made the decision to invest scarce community resources on open fiber, but now it's looking like one of the best decisions the city ever made.

Disclosure: Design Nine has been advising the City since 2006 on broadband.

Wired Road adds service provider, extends fiber to the home

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 02/24/2010 - 09:23

The Wired Road community broadband network in southwest Virginia has added Nationsline as a service provider, and is starting a rural fiber to the home expansion project this spring. Grant, Virginia residents will get 100 megabit fiber connections and a community computing center in the historic Grange Hall in the small town.

The Wired Road is an open access, open services, Layer 3 network with three retail service providers and two wholesale providers with a mountainous service area of more than 1,000 square miles. The Wired Road is part of The Crooked Road country music territory, and Galax, in the heart of the network, is home to the world famous Fiddler's Convention. Downtown Galax has fiber connections to more than sixty buildings. Design Nine designed and built The Wired Road network.

Design Nine's nDanville network selected for Intelligent Community award

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/19/2009 - 07:35

The Design Nine-designed open access network nDanville has been selected by the Intelligent Community Forum as one of the Smart21 communities for 2010. This international award looks not only at technology but how communities integrate technology into their community and economic development plans. Danville, Virginia's nDanville network was the first municipal open access, open services network in the United States, and has been connecting business customers since 2007. The community has successfully attracted new businesses and jobs because of the high performance network, including a $400 million data center that will be placed in what was formerly one of the largest textile mills in the country (the mill closed years ago with the loss of thousands of jobs).

The City of Danville Utilities Department took the lead in the effort, and has installed more than 100 miles of fiber throughout the City, and has taken fiber to every single business park and every single lot in each park, and has run fiber in the downtown area, including the historic Tobacco Warehouse District, which has fiber to renovated tobacco warehouse commercial buildings, apartments, and condos.

All services on the nDanville network are provided by private sector service providers, and businesses have a choice of 100 megabit Layer 3 service-oriented connections and Gigabit point to point connections.

The Wired Road opens for business

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 04/18/2009 - 16:22

Andrew Cohill, President of Design Nine, announced today that The Wired Road has begun full operations. An official ribbon-cutting takes place in Galax on April 20th, 2009 at 11 AM. The regional network is the largest integrated fiber and wireless open access, open services municipal network in the United States, and the high performance network will eventually provide services across more than 1,000 square miles of mountainous terrain in southwest Virginia. The project is a collaboration among three local governments, including Grayson and Carroll counties and the City of Galax. Crossroads Institute and Carroll County Public Schools are also partners in the effort. Design Nine provided the early planning, developed the financial and business models for the project, designed the network architecture, and provided comprehensive project management services to get the network built.

Planning for the project began in early 2007, and construction started later in the fall of that year. The first customers began using the system in mid-2008, and wireless residential and businesses customers can now request service connections. As an open access network, the project is unique among municipal broadband projects because all services are provided by private sector companies--the local governments are not selling any services to businesses and residents.

Cohill noted several other significant accomplishments, which include installing fiber in downtown Galax and deploying high performance wireless broadband to residents and businesses in portions of Carroll and Grayson counties that were completely unserved by broadband. Cohill said, “Residents that have been on dial up have been stopping work crews and asking when they can get wireless and fiber services. Everyone is anxious to get connected.” The fiber in Galax will provide connectivity not only to businesses but to organizations like the City government and the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts. The Twin County Regional Hospital has been using Wired Road fiber since January. The hospital’s switch to The Wired Road fiber got the institution a big increase in bandwidth with a sharp reduction in cost, and a local service provider was able to get the hospital’s Internet business for the first time.

Design Nine managed the entire network build out, which included vendor evaluation and selection, supervision of all the construction work, testing of the network, and installation of network management and monitoring software. Design Nine also developed a complete set of business, financial, and operations policies and procedures for the regional authority that was created to run the network.

Design Nine’s high performance design provides 100 megabit fiber connections and and multi-megabit wireless speeds. The project recently received additional funding that will expand wireless access in rural areas and will get fiber into every business park in the region.

About Design Nine – Design Nine provides visionary broadband network design and engineering services to clients, communities, and regions throughout the U.S. The firm has active projects in eight states, with several fiber to the home (FTTH) projects in build out or operations, including the first municipal open network in the U.S. Design Nine manages broadband fiber and wireless projects from beginning to end, including the initial assessment, design, construction, and operations phases. The company is one of the most experienced open access broadband network design firms in the United States, and offers a full range of assessment, planning, financial analysis, business design, and project management for public and private networks.

Blacksburg Electronic Village: "Most Wired Town in America"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/23/2009 - 08:55

The folks at Handshake 2.0 have reminded me that it was exactly thirteen years ago that Blacksburg made the cover of USA Weekend, a widely circulated Sunday supplement. The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) project was just a little more than two years old. We had turned on Internet access in October, 1993, and became the first general purpose ISP in the world. Long lines at the BEV office were common for the next several years as people eagerly registered to get Internet access. As Director, I had to work in uncharted territory; in the early days of the project, nearly everyone thought we were crazy because we claimed that in the near future, every household would have a computer, which seemed far-fetched enough at the time--a good 386 PC still cost several thousand dollars. But even goofier, we claimed that all those computers would be hooked to the "Internet," which we affectionately call today "the Intertubes."

The BEV project had a lot of firsts. We had the first residential broadband in the world, with half a dozen apartment complexes offering real Ethernet connections in every bedroom in 1994. It created a massive change in living preferences in Blacksburg, as students, faculty, and professionals tried to move to those early adopter apartment complexes. My group ran the community broadband network, which included the first business park to offer Ethernet/Internet access as an amenity, the first library in the world to offer free public Internet access, the first school system with broadband to every school and to every classroom, and arguably the first e-commerce in the world. In Blacksburg in 1995 you could order groceries online, and the local florist shop taking flower orders from all over the world. The Town of Blacksburg was the first local government online, starting with a Gopher site that quickly transitioned to the Web.

What was interesting was how many people told us the stuff we said was coming would never happen. Real estate agents told me repeatedly that they would never put home listings online, but a local Blacksburg firm eventually did just that and almost immediately sold a house--the first first house in the world sold via the Web. I met with local banks and urged them to put account access online. They listened solemnly and all came to back to a second meeting and told me that they had spoken with their IT folks and had been assured that it was "impossible" to put bank accounts online--not only was it technically infeasible but it was too big a security risk.

Today, I still have a sense of deja vu as I work with communities and economic developers on broadband issues. We are rapidly moving beyond "broadband = Internet" and towards a much more interesting and robust vision of broadband as a high performance network capable of delivering not just one or three or four services but hundreds. The telcos and cable companies were big skeptics of the Internet back in the nineties, and today they still remain deeply skeptical of the expansion of the network beyond just delivering the Web and a bit of email. Some smaller phone companies, especially in the mid-West and south, have really stepped up and are aggressively pursuing this new vision. And communities and regions like Danville, The Wired Road, and the The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority are building public/private partnerships to create the next generation broadband networks--successors of the Blacksburg Electronic Village.

Danville, Virginia broadband report

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/20/2008 - 09:32

Here is a brief video report on the broadband fiber network already in use in Danville, Virginia. The system has been operational for 10 months, and all services on the network are offered by private sector service providers (Disclaimer: Design Nine has helped Danville design and deploy the network).

Best small places to live and to work

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/02/2008 - 08:18

In a just released Forbes survey, Blacksburg, Virginia is ranked tenth in the nation as one of the best small places to live and to work. If you live in a small community, it is worth spending some time reviewing the Forbes study. Of the nine factors they use to rank communities, four of the nine are related directly to quality of life. These factors are Culture and Leisure, Crime Rate, Educational Attainment, and Cost of Living.

Among the other factors, Cost of Doing Business is one that any community can work on quickly. Our work at Design Nine takes us to small communities throughout the United States, and one of the most glaring problems I see over and over again is the lack of good "Class A" office space in smaller towns and regions. Too many communities are still trying to bring retail back to Main Street, when they should be rehabbing storefronts and second floor space for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

When Norton, Virginia rehabbed an old downtown hotel for high tech start ups, including affordable fiber to the building, Main Street blossomed as the office workers in the building shopped and ate downtown. The spacious lobby of the building regularly hosts community dinners, weddings, and special events, so the investment does double duty--how many weddings have been held in the typical industrial park incubator building?

The biggest mistake a small community can make these days is to put too much emphasis on business and industrial parks far from traditional downtowns--by making modest investments in high quality office space in traditional downtowns, you get a much bigger community and economic development impact. And as always, fiber has to be part of the mix.

Reverse job fair

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/04/2008 - 08:59

A group of economic development and technology organizations are holding a reverse job fair tomorrow (February 5th) in Blacksburg. A traditional job fair has employers at booths, and job seekers walk around looking for a job. In this reverse job fair, graduating students (mostly from Virginia Tech) are at tables, and the employers walk around.

This is an interesting idea born out of the understanding that many workers are now picking a location and lifestyle first and then looking for a job. The advantage to employers who attend is that there is a room full of prospective workers who are interested in living and working in the area.

Danville's open multi-service network

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/31/2008 - 08:35

The City of Danville, Virginia has a backlog of businesses waiting to get connected to its brand new open multi-service network (also sometimes called an open service provider network). Two service providers are offering business services on the network, and a local provider is delighted with being able to offer fiber services to its existing customers.

Two years ago, the City decided to leverage its existing city fiber infrastructure to make it available everywhere, but with a special focus on being able to provide any level of bandwidth a business wanted, and the city's fiber infrastructure is able to deliver it. Danville has a very simple definition of broadband:

Broadband in Danville is any amount of bandwidth your business needs to be competitive in the global knowledge economy.

Notice there is no number attached to that definition; any time a community defines broadband as a specific number (e.g. broadband is 2 megabits, or ten megabits, etc.), from an economic development perspective, the community is telling some businesses, "Don't locate here because we don't have the capacity to serve you." It's no different than not having enough water or sewer capacity.

More information about the project is on the nDanville Web site. Disclaimer: Design Nine is providing broadband architecture and consulting services to the City of Danville for the project.

Show them the numbers

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 12/18/2007 - 14:08

Here is an interesting analysis done by Stuart Mease, who works for the City of Roanoke, Virginia. Mease's job is trying to recruit young people to live and work in the Roanoke area. He has provided a cost of living comparison between Roanoke and some of the bigger towns and cities that are more likely to attract younger workers.

Roanoke compares very favorably; you can make less money and still live as well or better than you could in some bigger towns. Most smaller towns and cities would also fare very well with this kind of analysis, and could be an important factor when trying to convince a business to relocate to your area. The ability to pay lower salaries but still offer employees a great standard of living could be very attractive.

The dark side, the bright side

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/19/2007 - 08:53

The tragedy here in Blacksburg earlier this week highlights the dark side and the bright side of technology and the Internet, and is a useful reminder that technology is neither good nor bad--how people use it--for good or for evil--determines its value at any point in time.

Part of the dark side is the intense and almost suffocating media coverage, which began while events were still unfolding. Just a few years ago, this would have been a largely local event for at least a day or two, but with satellite and Internet technology, news organizations were covering this before it was even over. There is something surreal sitting in your office listening to the sirens wailing almost continuously as they carry the wounded to local hospitals--and watching live news reports via the computer and Internet. I could have walked over the scene, taken pictures, and uploaded them to this site or to others, and indeed, others did exactly that.

The phrase "too much information" comes to mind in this context. The NBC videos provided by the killer are more than we need to know, and may likely spawn copycats, just as the killer himself was obviously influenced by a dark Korean film of murder and mayhem. The constant repetition of the phrase "country's worst massacre" will likely encourage the next deranged individual to try even harder to surpass the Blacksburg death toll.

On the blogs, there are already countless thousands of articles, mostly playing Monday morning quarterback about what should or should not have happened. At some point, it all becomes noise.

The bright side is that this very same technology, used in precisely the same ways, has enabled an outpouring of kindness and compassion. Email, blogs, and Web sites are being used to help the families of the victims, to organize counseling and support, to reach out to those suffering from the effects, to encourage prayer, and to just send a few words of comfort.

We have a mighty tool in our hands, and how we use it is a measure of who we are and what we stand for.

Disaster highlights Internet robustness

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/17/2007 - 07:50

Unfortunately, the horrific murders here in Blacksburg yesterday highlighted yet again the technical superiority of the Internet during emergencies. For most of the day, it was difficult to make a phone call on a landline or cellphone, with most calls being greeted with "All circuites are busy." But the local public and private Internet networks kept chugging away, providing students and parents a way to connect. Instant messaging also proved important, and the Internet is used as a gateway between different cellphone messaging services.

Rescue personnel, first responders, hospitals, and health officials were using a pre-planned emergency management Web site to help manage the heavy casualties. No one local hospital was able to handle all of the serious gun shot wounds, and four hospitals in the Blacksburg and Roanoke areas were providing assistance and coordinating activities via the Internet.

Public safety and disaster management is a key use of Internet technology for local government. A robust, high capacity, community-managed broadband network can be an engine for economic development and an important tool for public safety.

Preparing our kids for the future

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/23/2007 - 11:05

Last night, I got to see what I think may be one of the best high school technology programs in the country. Mike Kaylor, a teacher at Blacksburg High School, convinced the school to convert the old high school woodworking shop into a multimedia design space, set up for professional digital photography, digital movie making, 3D modeling, online game design, and movie special effects. Kaylor's classes are mobbed--student demand is three times higher than the capacity of his classes. His students are already working in high paying jobs in the movie and entertainment industry. And hundreds more are leaving his courses with a solid understanding of digital technology that will help them be successful no matter what career path they choose--business, government, or the nonprofit sector.

The sad truth is that most of our kids have a grasp of technology that is about as deep as a layer of tissue paper. Being able to text message and find a song quickly on an iPod does not prepare our youth for the work world, and too many adults, who tend to feel a bit inadequate, assume incorrectly that facility with email, the Web, and iPods somehow is enough.

Every high school in America ought to have a program like Kaylor's, and it should have the same vision as Kaylor's. When Kaylor wanted movie special effects software, he did not settle for low budget programs. Instead, he insisted on getting the same software that is used in the major studios to produce the special effects in movies like The Lord of the Rings. So Blacksburg kids in Kaylor's class are leaving with a solid foundation in digital media and the skills and training in demand by potential employers.

Not all of these kids will end up working in Hollywood. Some of them will settle down right here in the New River Valley, and the businesses in the area will benefit from having an ever expanding pool of job candidates with the right stuff.

Economic developers: How about your community? Worried about having a pool of workers ready for Knowledge Economy jobs? How about skipping the next shell building project and starting the kind of multimedia program that Mike Kaylor has at Blacksburg High School? From an economic development perspective, there are few other things that would be more interesting to a high tech business looking at your area for relocation.

Getting ready to grow

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/05/2007 - 09:50

With traffic choking the major metropolitan areas of the country, I think that some smaller cities like Roanoke, Virginia and Scranton, Pennsylvania are poised for growth, if they can adequately address a range of quality of life issues. These smaller cities may have a rush hour, but it usually measured in minutes, not hours, and because they are located outside major urban corridors, it is possible to have a nice house in the woods a few miles from town and still drive to work in fifteen or twenty minutes.

But no one is going to move to those places only because of a shorter commute. There has to be enough activity to attract both entrepreneurs and young people. Entrepreneurs want to talk to savvy and well-informed economic developers, they want inexpensive, downtown office space for their start ups, they want good places to eat, and they want great coffee shops. Young twenty-something workers want good shopping, lots of social activities, and some night life.

Northeastern Pennsylvania, home to Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and dozens of smaller communities, is poised for growth. The Wall Street West initiative will bring massive bandwidth into the region to attract larger financial firms, and Scranton's investments in sports arenas and recreational activities (how about skiing ten minutes from downtown?) will help attract and retain workers.

Roanoke, Virginia, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, has convenient access to some of the best hiking, biking, and whitewater sports on the east coast, with a dizzying array of recreational options. The City's leadership has embarked on a wide variety of initiatives to attract younger workers, including a newly revamped Web site. This week, the City is also announcing a new initiative called, which is designed to help retailers easily learn about the Roanoke area market.

Lively and attractive small cities are also important to nearby rural towns. Not everyone wants to live "in town," and a vibrant small city an hour or two from a rural community enhances the value of that small town as well. Regional collaboration on marketing, recreational activities, and economic development can pay big benefits.

Phone deregulation in Virginia

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 01/18/2007 - 07:35

Verizon wants to be deregulated in Virginia for phone service. The company asserts that there is ample competition and that the company should no longer be forced to charge set prices for certain services.

What struck me was the note in the article that the company submitted 2,400 pages of "documentation" to prove its case. If the situation is as obvious as the company asserts, why so much paper? The article leaves some questions unresolved. For example, some phone users get service from a third party like AT&T but that service comes in over Verizon lines. My guess is that in its request, Verizon is counting AT&T as a competitor, but if deregulation occurs, Verizon could raise the rates on its wholesale access to the point that it is no longer profitable for companies like AT&T to do business. This is exactly what happened when price controls were lifted for DSL; across the country, virtually all the third party DSL providers, who had really created the market when the phone companies avoided it, went out of business, leaving the field to the incumbents.

Should Verizon be unleashed? It is likely to be a painful pill in the short term, but partial regulation (of some companies and not others) creates market irregularities that keep communities chained to old technology. In the long term, the best answer is open service provider networks that let any company use the community's digital roads to sell goods and services (and no, the government won't be competing with the private sector). Verizon, among others, could use those community digital roads to keep existing customers and to attract new ones. And prices would go down across the board.

Saying no to school laptops

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 09/06/2006 - 06:45

Henrico County, Virginia, has garnered national attention for its program of giving laptops to kids once they reach sixth grade. But if the school system is not prepared to truly transform the teaching and learning process, the results may not be what we expect. In this article, at least one mother made her daughter give the laptop back because it had become a time waster for the girl and her grades had dropped.

It is easy to blame it on kids spending too much time chatting and goofing off on online Web sites, but those are only symptoms of the real problem. I can take some of the blame for all this, as the Blacksburg Electronic Village project helped our county schools become the first school system in the country to have broadband to every school and to become the first school system in the country to have broadband in every classroom. Since then I have worked on many other K12 technology projects--all with the best of intentions, but the results have been mixed at best.

Teaching kids is a complext process that requires years of experience, and you can't just drop a few computers into the middle of a centuries old way of doing things and expect magical results. I have learned that the hard way. In my experience, it is school administrators that are most often at fault. They are eager to win grants and push technology into the classroom; it looks good to parents and to elected leaders that decide school budgets.

But those same administrators are often much less enthusiastic about actually rolling up their sleeves, working side by side with teachers, and trying to figure out what changes need to be made to really leverage the promise of all this technology. And there is what I call the "five percent problem." Dump a bunch of technology into a school, and under any circumstances, you will have about five percent of teachers who are motivated to dig in and do amazing things with the stuff. Those "five percent" projects become the poster children for technology in the classroom. They are used to say, "See what great stuff all this is!"

But those five percenters are the exception, not the rule. Most teachers need a lot of help and support from the top down to get comparable results, and it usually is not there. So while computer manufacturers make money selling computers to schools, our kids are still learning the same old way. If your school district wants money for technology efforts, ask some hard questions about how administrators intend to support teachers with good tech support, appropriate learning resources, and assistance with curriculum changes.

Fill 'er up....with water

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/07/2006 - 10:39

A Virginia Tech chemist (hat tip to the Roanoke Times)has developed a molecule that enables an artificial photosynthesis process that can be used to split water. In doing so, you end up with hydrogen that can be used to power an automobile. Sunlight is used to provide energy for the process. It is still in an experimental stage, but points the way for simply being able to fuel your car from the garden hose.

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Designed by Design Nine, the nDanville fiber network has won the Intelligent Community Forum's Smart 21 award for 2010.

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